Crowds and ‘Publics’
by Chetan Parikh
  
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In a classic, “The Age of the Crowd”, the author, Serge Moscovici, writes on opinion, the public and the crowd.

 

“Instead of crowds being drawn together at the same place and time, we now have scattered ones or, in other words, a series of publics. The means of communication we have now obviously make it pointless that people should come together to exchange information and engage in a process of mutual imitation. The media penetrate every home and seek out every individual to change him into a member of a mass.

 

It is the kind of mass, however, that is seen nowhere because it is everywhere. The millions of people who quietly read their paper and involuntarily talk like their radio are members of the new kind of crowd, which is immaterial, dispersed and domestic. We are dealing with what I have called the public, or rather publics, that is newspaper readers, radio audiences and television viewers. They all stay at home, but they are all together, and all seem different, but are similar.

 

Tarde saw them rather than the ‘colourful’ crowds as the really new feature of our age, suggesting that

 

The modem age, since the invention of printing, has produced a very different and ever-increasing kind of public, a public whose indefinite extension is one of the outstanding features of the age we live in. We have studied crowd psychology, and now we need to study the psychology of publics. (Tarde, 1910: 2)

 

Here he has been proved right, for opinion polls and analyses of the media are meeting this wish. We need to know why.

 

II

 

Organisation changes natural crowds into artificial ones and communications change them into ‘publics’. Organisation heightens the intelligence of the individual in the mass and communications lower it by making him part of a mass audience at home.

 

The implications of this are obvious. Whether we are scattered or concentrated, meeting in a stadium or in a square round a leader or alone in our flats reading our papers or glued to our television sets for the latest speech by the president, our psychological state is a similar one. We are ruled by our emotions and not our reason and are susceptible to suggestion. Even when we are separated, we still share the same illusion of omnipotence, are still subject to the same exaggerated judgements and feelings and still prey to the same emotions of hatred and violence as if we were taking part in a mass demonstration in the street. In short, we are still ‘sleepwalkers’ fascinated by the charisma of our leaders and ready to obey and imitate them.

 

If the first case, however, we are brought to that state by suggestion operating at close quarters and in the second by long-distance suggestion from the mass media, which are free of any spatial limitation. It is rather as if a doctor, instead of hypnotising a patient by verbal and visual contact, did so by means of letters and photographs of hundreds of patients whom he did not know and who did not know him. From a mass influence exerted by leaders (who will always be with us) performing on the spot, we have moved to one exerted by leaders who, like gravity, perform when they are not there. And, of course, ‘if that long-distance suggestive influence on individuals forming part of the same public is to become possible, they will have engaged in it over a long period, which means being accustomed to an intense social life, urban life and suggestion at close quarters’ (Tarde, 1910: 5).

 

This is what the newspaper does. The setting-up and presentation of topics and the particular colouring given to articles must all help compel the reader's attention. It may appear to be varied and to contain all sorts of things, but there has to be a focal point, a theme or headline that will capture the interest and hold on to it. This ‘bait’ is ‘increasingly highlighted and holds the attention of the whole readership, who are hypnotised by the single brilliant point of light’ (Tarde, 1910: 18).

 

The difference between the two modes of suggestion explains the differences between crowds and ‘publics’. In the case of the former, physical contact is always there. In that of the latter, there is a purely mental cohesion. The mutual influences produced in physical crowds by bodily contact, the sound of a voice and the excitement and hold of a gaze are brought about in other forms by the communication of feelings and ideas. This means that crowds are quicker to act and react, to be carried away by their emotions and to show excessive enthusiasm or panic. A ‘public’ is slower to move, finds greater difficulty in committing itself to violent or heroic movements and remains, in short, a great deal more moderate. A crowd is an occasion of sensory contagion, a ‘public’ is subject to a purely intellectual one which is encouraged by the wholly abstract and yet very real grouping of individuals. Tarde notes that

 

publics are different from crowds in that the proportion of publics based on a faith or an idea is much higher, whatever their origin may be, than that of those based on passion and action, whereas there are very few believing and idealistic crowds in comparison with the number of passionate and agitated ones. (Tarde, 1910: 37)

 

In short, a crowd is to a public as the social body is to the social mind. One might wonder how people who neither see each other, come into contact with each other nor affect each other can be associated. What link is established between people when they are at home reading their paper or listening to their radio and all spread over a very wide geographical area? The answer, of course, is that they form a public and are subject to suggestion, because each one of them, at the same time, is convinced that he is sharing an idea or a desire with a large number of his fellows. Has it not been said of the readers of a major national daily that the first thing they see when they unfold their paper is the circulation figures? They are influenced by the thought of the regard of others, the totally subjective feeling of being scrutinised by people very far away:

 

Merely being aware of it, even if he does not see the people themselves, is enough for him to be influenced by them as a mass, and not only by journalists, who have an effect on both sides and are all the more fascinating because they remain invisible and unknown. (Tarde, 1910: 3)

 

The crowd and the public, like all kinds of human groups, also have the common feature of being created and led by a leader. Anyone observing meetings of people simultaneously sharing an idea and striving and directing themselves towards a goal can immediately see that the leader is the instigator and orchestrator of their actions. In the case of crowds, the instigator is most frequently hidden, invisible because he is totally immersed in the anonymous mass and is anonymous himself.

 

There is certainly a lot about Tarde's ideas that is banal, but revealing the nature of ‘publics’ and foreseeing how they would behave in the age of the masses now suggests a deep sense of reality.”